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19 on IR? Injury rate is biggest impediment to Bears’ turnaround

It’s only fitting that the one player on injured reserve that the Bears designated for return, did not. With the Bears’ luck with injuries, it’s almost an upset that cornerback Kyle Fuller isn’t worse.

The Bears thought Fuller could return this season, but he will not after the Bears decided last week against putting him on the active roster. With Fuller and nose tackle Eddie Goldman — a late, but not unexpected addition to injured reserve on Friday — the Bears have 19 players on IR this season and 33 in two seasons under coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace. (That’s more than double the number of players on IR in two years under Marc Trestman — 15 (five in 2013 and 10 in 2014).

Those numbers underscore arguably the biggest offseason x-factor for the Bears as they get closer to what figures to be a critical season for both Fox and Pace in 2017. Almost regardless of who plays quarterback or how much better Leonard Floyd, Jordan Howard, Cody Whitehair, Nick Kwiatkoski and Bryce Callahan are next season, if the Bears can’t avoid the glut of injuries and re-injuries that gutted them this season, they have almost no chance to taking the huge step they need to take to become a playoff contender.

Injuries are mostly considered a factor of luck in the NFL, but the Bears’ spate of injuries this season almost defies that explanation. The Bears have an NFL-high $32.7 million in salary cap space on injured reserve, according to spotrac.com (the Vikings are next at $27.7 million). The Bears have 16 players who have played in all 15 games — the league average is 22.2 (only the woebegone Jets have fewer, with 14). The Bears have just two players who have played in 90 percent of the offensive/defensive snaps this season. The league average is more than triple that — 6.3. The playoff-bound Cowboys, Giants, Falcons and Raiders have eight or more.

Three-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Kyle Long (75, on cart) missed games for two separate injuries and played in only eight games this season. He is one of 19 Bears players on injured reserve after suffering ligament damage to his right ankle against the Buccaneers on Nov. 13. He also will have surgery to repair a torn labrum. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

“Some teams have stayed healthy and some not as much,” Fox said. “There are actually teams that have more missed to injury than we have and I think the records are similar.”

The Bears litany of injuries under Fox has at least a couple of red flags. From Kevin White to Alshon Jeffery to Pernell McPhee to Marquess Wilson to Fuller, the Bears have a lot of injuries that often become more problematic than they appeared. The Bears tried to nurse White through is leg injury last summer and he ended up missing the entire season with a stress fracture. Fuller had “clean-out” arthroscopic surgery and also missed the entire season.

And managing injuries seems to be problematic. McPhee tried to play through a knee injury last year and ended up missing the first six games of this season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Goldman, after missing six games earlier this season with a high ankle sprain, re-injured the ankle after returning in Week 10, tried to play through the injury and ended up on IR.

The challenge for the Bears is to not only get players healthy, but keep them healthy. Goldman has missed games with the same ankle injury three times this season. Eddie Royal missed two games with a toe injury, returned for three games but aggravated or re-injured the toe and is on IR.

Wide receiver Marquess Wilson injured the same foot three times in the last 12 months. He suffered a broken left foot in practice last December and went to injured reserve. He broke it again in mini-camp in June. Wilson spent nine weeks on the PUP list and returned in Week 10, but fractured the same foot on Dec. 14, again in practice.

Fox generally downplays injuries as part of the game — even repeat injuries, like Goldman, Royal and Wilson. “I don’t think that is an issue,”  Fox said last month, “other than anytime you’ve had an injury somewhere, that can repeat itself. People have chronic stuff in all walks of life.”

But with the injuries piling up, the losses piling up and Fox in need of a resurgent 2017 season, even he seems to understand that the Bears might need to do more than just keep their fingers crossed and hope that the injury bug won’t bite them as much next season.

“You look at everything,” Fox said. “There will be a lot of different things on the table I’m sure around the league. I think injuries are up throughout the whole league. Even how we handle our offseason — which people could argue maybe is ideal or not ideal to prevent injuries. but either way it’s going to be that way for a while. You’ve just got to deal with it and adjust to it and that will be something we’ll look strong at when the season’s over.”